“The NLSLA, Western Center on Law and Poverty and Public Interest Law Project presented to the Superior Court data that showed the county had violated state and federal laws — for months.”
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Court injunction will require county to process all emergency CalFresh applications in three days
Los Angeles, CA – In a major victory in the fight against hunger, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted today to enter into a permanent injunction for a case filed in Los Angeles Superior Court, Hunger Action Los Angeles, et al. v. County of Los Angeles, et al., requiring the county to process and approve emergency CalFresh applications in a timely manner. The injunction will impact thousands of vulnerable families experiencing dangerous food insecurity in Los Angeles County each month.
“We wouldn’t tolerate it if the fire department took a day to respond to a fire, and we shouldn’t waste time when people are hungry,” said Frank Tamborello of Hunger Action Los Angeles, one of the organizational plaintiffs in the lawsuit. “The county has the resources, provided by the federal government, to respond immediately.”
The State of California requires counties to expedite food assistance applications for people with extremely low incomes who are homeless or whose housing costs exceed their resources or monthly income. But for more than a year, LA County consistently failed to process emergency applications for CalFresh—formerly known as food stamps—in under three days as required by law.
“We are heartened the county, in entering this agreement, acknowledges that hunger cannot wait,” said Lena Silver, an attorney with Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County (NLSLA). “These are applications for emergency assistance, and the county must treat them with an appropriate level of urgency.”
Two organizations fighting hunger in Los Angeles—Hunger Action Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Community Action Network—along with an applicant affected by the delays, sued the county in November, demanding that it comply with its obligation to grant expedited access to critical food benefits.
“The county’s blatant disregard for people living in extreme poverty, who tend to be Black and Brown, was exacerbating racial inequities in disadvantaged communities like Skid Row and South Los Angeles,” said Todd Cunningham of the Los Angeles Community Action Network. “We sued to force the county to follow the law.”
Represented by NLSLA, Western Center on Law and Poverty, Public Interest Law Project, and pro bono counsel from Sidley Austin LLP, the groups presented the court with data showing the county had violated both state and federal law for months leading up to the lawsuit. In one month alone, the county failed to meet the state’s three-day timeline in 53 percent of eligible applications, leaving 7,600 individuals and families who qualify for expedited benefits without access to CalFresh. Some applicants had to wait more than a month to receive emergency food assistance.
“Following the filing of the lawsuit, the county’s processing of applications has improved – but not nearly enough,” said Lauren Hansen of Public Interest Law Project. “Each and every one of these emergency applications must be processed immediately.”
Peter, a CalFresh applicant named in the lawsuit, was 17 years old when his father suffered a severe stroke that left him partially paralyzed and unable to continue his work as a day laborer. Peter should have received access to CalFresh in three days. Instead, the family heard nothing from the county for 17 days, at which time someone called and left a message. When Peter’s father tried to return the call, he got a “high call-volume” message and was disconnected. Then he received a letter stating Peter’s application had been denied.
A November 2021 report from the county Department of Public Health warned of the “devastating consequences” of food insecurity, which significantly increases the risk of type 2 diabetes, hypertension, obesity, and psychological distress or depression. In childhood, food insecurity is associated with delayed development, diminished academic performance, anxiety and depression, and early-onset obesity.
Hunger Action LA (HALA) works to end hunger and promote healthy eating through advocacy, direct service, and organizing.
The Los Angeles Community Action Network (LA CAN) consists of extremely low-income and homeless people, primarily those living in Downtown LA and South Central LA. LA CAN recruits organizational members and builds indigenous leadership within this constituency to promote human rights and address multiple forms of oppression faced by extremely low-income, predominately African-American and Latino, residents. LA CAN focuses on issues related to civil rights and preventing the criminalization of poverty, women’s rights, the human right to housing, and healthy food access. LA CAN also has projects focused on economic development, civic participation and voter engagement, and community media.
Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County (NLSLA) is a steadfast advocate for individuals, families, and communities throughout Los Angeles County. Each year NLSLA provides free assistance to more than 100,000 people through innovative projects that address the most critical needs of people living in poverty. Through a combination of individual representation, high impact litigation and public policy advocacy, NLSLA combats the immediate and long-lasting effects of poverty and expands access to health, opportunity, and justice in Los Angeles’ diverse neighborhoods.
Public Interest Law Project (PILP) advances justice for low-income people and communities by building the capacity of legal services organizations through impact litigation, trainings, and publications, and by advocating for low-income community groups and individuals.
Sidley Austin LLP is a premier law firm with a practice highly attuned to the ever-changing international landscape. The firm has built a reputation for being an adviser for global business, with more than 2,000 lawyers worldwide. Sidley maintains a commitment to providing quality legal services and to offering advice in litigation, transactional, and regulatory matters spanning virtually every area of law. The firm’s lawyers have wide-reaching legal backgrounds and are dedicated to teamwork, collaboration, and superior client service.
Western Center on Law & Poverty fights in courts, cities, counties, and in the Capitol to secure housing, health care and a strong safety net for Californians with low incomes, through the lens of economic and racial justice.
We’re headed into the last month of the year, which means this is the last EPIC Newsletter of 2021!
Keep your eyes peeled in December for our end-of-year message to round out 2021 and welcome 2022.
Latinx Families File Lawsuit Against Harbor Regional Center
Western Center and Disability Rights California filed a lawsuit on behalf of a parent group in Torrance, CA to stop discrimination against Latinx families at Harbor Regional Center. The regional center is supposed to provide services to adults and children with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The parent group, Padres Buscando el Cambio, is comprised of families whose needs have been ignored, and who’ve faced explicitly discriminatory comments from Harbor Regional Center staff.
As a recipient of state funds, Harbor Regional Center’s actions are not only unfair, they are also illegal. Our lawsuit seeks to compel the regional center and state to deliver services that meet the needs of everyone the center serves.
L.A. County Sued for Failing to Provide Timely Food Assistance
Western Center, Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County, and The Public Interest Law Project filed a lawsuit on behalf of two organizations fighting hunger in Los Angeles and one CalFresh (aka food stamp) recipient who had to wait over a month for CalFresh when he and his father had no money for food, despite a state mandate requiring such benefits be distributed in three days.
The lawsuit demands that the county comply with its legal obligation to grant expedited access to critical food benefits for those most in need.
Giving Season is Here!
Tomorrow, November 30th, is Giving Tuesday – a global movement to amplify the power of radical generosity. There are so many ways to participate in Giving Tuesday, from random acts of kindness, to telling a friend how much you appreciate them, to making a donation to Western Center – the goal is a day filled with giving and generosity. How do you plan to participate?
If you were unable to join us for this year’s virtual Garden Party event, or just want to re-watch the festivities, you can find the recording of the program here. It’s also not too late to make a donation to support the event! Click here to make a donation.
Native American Heritage Month
November is Native American Heritage Month, which according to the National Congress of American Indians “is a time to celebrate rich and diverse cultures, traditions, and histories and to acknowledge the important contributions of Native people. Heritage Month is also an opportune time to educate the general public about tribes, to raise a general awareness about the unique challenges Native people have faced both historically and in the present, and the ways in which tribal citizens have worked to conquer these challenges.”
The Library of Congress, National Archives and Records Administration, National Endowment for the Humanities, National Gallery of Art, National Park Service, Smithsonian Institution, and United States Holocaust Memorial Museum paid tribute to the traditions and ancestry of Native Americans with a collection of events and resources throughout November. PBS also offers a collection of film, documentaries, and programs to inform and celebrate the history, influence, and contributions of Native Americans.
“This is the county’s self-reported data, and it’s staggering,” said Western Center on Law & Poverty attorney Alex Prieto. “Each time the county fails to process an application on time, it puts people in danger of hunger and pushes parents into a devastating struggle to provide for their children’s most basic needs.”
“This is the county’s self-reported data, and it’s staggering,” said Western Center on Law & Poverty attorney Alex Prieto. “Each time the county fails to process an application on time, it puts people in danger of hunger and pushes parents into a devastating struggle to provide for their children*s most basic needs.”
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Settlement comes ten months after lawsuit said denial of SNAP Emergency Allotments violated the Families First Coronavirus Response Act
SAN FRANCISCO, CA — Approximately one million California households will soon be permitted to receive emergency food benefits under new USDA guidance, thanks in part to the settlement of the lawsuit Hall v. U.S. Department of Agriculture, which was filed in the early months of the pandemic. Plaintiffs Robin Hall and Steven Summers are two Californians who were denied emergency food benefits authorized by Congress in March of 2020. In the lawsuit, Hall and Summers argued that USDA illegally denied them and other Californians emergency benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (aka SNAP — CalFresh in California), solely because they already received the maximum regular benefit allotment, which was $194 per month at the time.
“Even before the pandemic, I worked hard to stretch my monthly SNAP benefits to meet my food needs. The pandemic made it much harder to get regular meals,” said Hall. “This emergency assistance will be a huge help to me and many others. I feel so honored to fight for everyone like me. It means so much to me.”
After the emergency benefits were signed into law in March 2020, USDA published guidance denying emergency benefits to households receiving the maximum regular benefit, which are those with the lowest incomes. Both Hall and Summers are single adults in groups at high risk for complications from COVID-19, who struggled to maintain healthy diets during the pandemic but were denied emergency food assistance. They are represented by the Impact Fund and Western Center on Law & Poverty.
Under the terms of yesterday’s settlement, USDA agreed to immediately stop enforcing its guidance on emergency allotments as to California. The same day, USDA issued new guidance announcing a policy change to provide emergency allotments to all households enrolled in SNAP with minimum payments of $95 per month for each household.
“This settlement represents exactly what we were hoping to achieve here in California,” said Lindsay Nako, Impact Fund’s Director of Litigation and Training, who represented Hall and Summers. “USDA’s willingness to settle this lawsuit, as well as the steps the Biden Administration has taken to make emergency food aid available to people with the lowest incomes, is cause for optimism about the future of SNAP – in California and beyond.”
Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act in March of 2020 in response to COVID-19; it was partially meant to address rising food insecurity and hunger by providing additional resources for SNAP recipients. Specifically, the Act authorized USDA to approve state requests for emergency allotments to households participating in SNAP. When California applied for the emergency aid, USDA initially denied the state’s request because it included benefits for those receiving the maximum regular benefit, which prompted the lawsuit. USDA did not approve California’s request until the state removed households receiving the maximum regular benefit.
Within days of President Biden’s inauguration, the White House issued an executive order and accompanying fact sheet that called on USDA to “[a]llow larger emergency [SNAP] allotments for the lowest-income households,” which would provide enhanced SNAP benefits to an additional 12 million people. The settlement and updated guidance mark a new path forward for USDA.
“We are pleased to see USDA turn the page toward making sure people who need help the most can get it,” said Alexander Prieto, a senior litigator for Western Center who represented the plaintiffs. “The past year has been incredibly hard for people with very low incomes. This settlement and USDA’s new guidance is a step in a different direction, and we hope for continued efforts to expand, rather than take away, vital safety net programs.”
People with very low incomes continue to face the greatest risk of hunger and food insecurity during the pandemic. They are less likely to have food reserves on hand and more likely to rely on food banks, free meal providers, and other emergency channels for food distribution, which are currently overextended and under-resourced. By acknowledging those realities and providing additional aid so individuals and families can take care of their food needs, USDA is embarking on a more humane path forward for people who rely on its assistance.
“The outcome of this lawsuit counters the mythology that SNAP covers an entire food budget,” said Summers. “Households have to supplement what they receive even in normal times — just because you get the full amount doesn’t mean you are on easy street. Hopefully this lawsuit will be a reminder of this: not enough is not enough, no matter how much you receive. I hope this is a springboard for recognizing the shortcomings in SNAP and making more changes to combat hunger.”
Contact: Courtney McKinney, cmckinney[at]wclp.org
The Impact Fund provides strategic leadership and support for litigation to achieve economic and social justice. We provide funds for impact litigation in the areas of civil rights, environmental justice, and poverty law. We offer innovative technical support, training, and expertise on issues that arise in large scale impact litigation. We serve as lead counsel, co-counsel, and amicus counsel in select class action and impact litigation.
Western Center on Law & Poverty fights for justice and system-wide change to secure housing, health care, racial justice and a strong safety net for Californians with low income. Western Center attains real-world, policy solutions for clients through litigation, legislative and policy advocacy, and technical assistance and legal support for the state’s legal aid programs. Western Center is California’s oldest and largest legal services support center.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Decision reverses lower court ruling; says Department of Social Services is responsible for replacing food benefits stolen from Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card holders
Los Angeles, CA — The California Court of Appeal has ruled that the Department of Social Services must replace CalFresh benefits (formerly “food stamps”) when they are electronically stolen from recipients. Attorneys with Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles (LAFLA) and Western Center on Law & Poverty represented plaintiffs Esther Ortega and Joe Soza, both of whom are recipients of CalFresh benefits who experienced electronic theft. Hunger Action Los Angeles, an organization working to end hunger and promote healthy eating through advocacy, direct service, and organizing, was also an organizational plaintiff in the case.
“This decision makes it clear that people don’t have to go hungry if through no fault of their own, their CalFresh benefits are stolen,” said Frank Tamborello, Executive Director of Hunger Action LA. “It’s especially critical during this pandemic, with hunger at an all-time high and electronic theft increasing.”
The Court of Appeal decision in Esther Ortega et al., v. Kimberley Johnson, et al. reverses a trial court decision that said the state is not responsible for replacing stolen benefits, and requires reversal of the California Department of Social Services’ previous denial of the plaintiffs’ requests for replacement benefits.
“It’s disappointing that a high-tech and food-abundant place like California has been failing to protect poor households against the electronic theft of food benefits, as existing regulations require,” said Andrew Kazakes, a LAFLA Staff Attorney who worked on the case. “This decision will bring welcome relief to victims of EBT skimming theft across the state, especially during the pandemic when the importance of food security is that much greater.”
Ms. Ortega and Mr. Soza both had their food benefits stolen by people who obtained their account numbers and PIN’s (Personal Identification Number) — a form of theft that has become increasingly common. The thieves made unauthorized transactions using their account information, and drained close to their entire monthly allotment of CalFresh benefits.
As electronic theft becomes more technologically sophisticated, more low-income Californians are left without essential anti-hunger food benefits, even when they protect their EBT cards and personal information. The result in this case will ensure that CalFresh recipients have their benefits replaced when they are stolen by electronic thieves, and that they don’t go hungry when they are victims of high-tech theft.
“What’s most striking is that the California Department of Social Services acknowledged that the plaintiffs were not at fault in the theft of their benefits, but still left them to bear the loss,” said Alexander Prieto, a Senior Attorney on the case for Western Center. “The Department knows that people’s benefits are being stolen electronically. It puts out notices and warnings; yet before this ruling, it ignored the requirement to ensure that victims of the crimes receive their crucial food benefits.”
California’s CalFresh rules protect electronic theft victims, but replacing benefits is optional under federal law, which ultimately governs CalFresh and similar programs in other states, even though the United States Department of Agriculture also knows the benefits are vulnerable to theft. “Hopefully this ruling sets the stage for a better federal model,” Prieto said.
The point of food assistance is to make sure people can eat. With California and the country both experiencing record levels of hunger, it’s vitally important for government to safeguard necessary food assistance for eligible recipients. This ruling is an important step for Californians who rely on CalFresh benefits to prevent hunger.
Courtney McKinney, cmckinney[at]wclp.org
Sara J. Williams, sjwilliams[at]lafla.org
About Hunger Action Los Angeles – Hunger Action Los Angeles (HALA) works to end hunger and promote healthy eating through advocacy, direct service, and organizing.
About Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles – Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles (LAFLA) seeks to achieve equal justice for people living in poverty across Greater Los Angeles. LAFLA changes lives through direct representation, systems change and community empowerment. It has five offices in Los Angeles County, along with four Self-Help Legal Access Centers at area courthouses and three domestic violence clinics to aid survivors.
About Western Center on Law & Poverty – Through the lens of economic and racial justice, Western Center on Law & Poverty fights in courts, cities, counties, and in the Capitol to secure housing, health care and a strong safety net for low-income Californians.
Yesterday, a federal judge in the District of Columbia struck down an attempt by the Trump Administration to stop food benefits for nearly 700,000 unemployed people referred to by the USDA as “Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependents,” or “ABAWDs” in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). In the decision for District of Columbia et al v. U.S. Department of Agriculture et al, which comes seven months after the same judge issued a temporary preliminary injunction halting part of the rule, Chief U.S. District Judge Beryl A. Howell called the USDA’s proposed rule “arbitrary and capricious,” particularly because the department failed to address the high number of people who would lose access to food, in the midst of a pandemic, if the dramatic rule change was implemented.
Impact Fund Staff Attorney David Nahmias wrote an excellent article in July with substantial background on the so-called “ABAWD Time Limit rule” and the Trump Administration/USDA’s quest to make the already tight restrictions even tighter, over the objections of tens of thousands of public commenters. The USDA’s new rule would have restricted state authority to provide waivers to the time limit for obtaining work for people who are unemployed and in need of food assistance. For the past two decades, states have been allowed to provide waivers according to the economic and employment situations in their state, which, as Judge Howell pointed out in her decision, is particularly precarious right now because of the pandemic. The USDA’s proposed rule was an attempt to take away state discretion in favor of a harsh one-size-fits-all rule that would have taken food aid away from hundreds of thousands of people who need it.
Due to the rule’s potential to negatively impact a high number of Californians, Western Center on Law & Poverty immediately began organizing against it upon its release in December 2018, which led to the submission of hundreds of opposition comments from California’s broader anti-poverty community. In November of 2019, Western Center advocates met with the Office of Management and Budget at the White House to reinforce our opposition to the rule and organized others to do the same.
In early 2020, Impact Fund and Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman joined Western Center to watch and support the D.C. case. Over the summer, we led a coalition of twenty-nine legal and advocacy organizations to submit an Amicus Brief, which appears to have had a substantial impact on the overall outcome of the case – particularly regarding the discretionary exemptions statute, which we argued the USDA had right back in 1999. In her decision, Judge Howell agreed with our interpretation of that statute through explicit mention of the State Plaintiffs’ reply brief, which refers heavily to our Amicus Brief. We are very proud to have had a hand in such a significant decision.
It’s important that this attempt by the USDA to take food aid away from people who need it was struck down, but it’s also important to note that the ABAWD Time Limit rule would not exist if it wasn’t for the 1996 welfare “reform” bill, which has done significant harm to communities across the country and solidified racial and economic disparities – including making the process for obtaining food aid incredibly onerous for people already struggling with systemic poverty. Last year, California Representative Barbara Lee introduced H.R.2809 – the Improving Access to Nutrition Act of 2019, to end the SNAP ABAWD Time Limit rule altogether. Western Center helped craft and subsequently endorsed H.R.2809, which has strong support from California’s anti-hunger community.
Yesterday’s ruling on the SNAP ABAWD Time Limit rule is very welcome news in the face of an ongoing pandemic, record unemployment, civil unrest, and persistent racial injustice. It means hundreds of thousands of people in this country will continue to have access to the food they need in the middle of multiple crises. Now that the baseline is safeguarded, we must continue to push for a long term fix to inhumane SNAP food stamp rules like the ABAWD Time Limit rule.
For questions contact:
Courtney McKinney, Director of Communications, Western Center on Law & Poverty — cmckinney[at]wclp.org, (214) 395-2755
Lindsay Nako, Director of Litigation & Training, Impact Fund — LNako[at]impactfund.org, (510) 845-3473 ext. 307
Erik Cummins, Senior PR Manager, Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman — erik.cummins[at]pillsburylaw.com, (415) 217-9341
“States don’t have to request a waiver or anything like that to get the program,” says Jessica Bartholow, now a policy advocate at the Western Center on Law and Poverty, of the low federal barriers to implementation.”
“At a hearing on the matter last week, attorney Alexander Prieto with the Western Center on Law & Poverty said the USDA’s interpretation of the FFCRA “seems to rest on the presumption that the max monthly allotment is sufficient in all circumstances, and that Congress assumed that was all that was necessary to put everyone up to the maximum monthly allotment.”